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Southwest Airlines cancels thousands of flights as operational meltdown cascades

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of passengers all over the country have seen their flights on Southwest delayed or canceled. And the airline is still canceling flights right at the peak of the busy holiday season.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Tuesday night, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan issued a video pleading with frustrated travelers and frustrated Southwest employees for patience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB JORDAN: We're doing everything we can to return to a normal operation. And please also hear that I'm truly sorry.

FADEL: Kyle Arnold covers aviation for the Dallas Morning News. And he's been following this story. Good morning, Kyle.

KYLE ARNOLD: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So Kyle, how many flights has Southwest canceled at this point?

ARNOLD: Up to this point, it's been more than 13,000. And now it's looking about 2,500 a day, you know, indefinitely, until they can get this figured out.

FADEL: So what is happening? What is Southwest saying caused all this?

ARNOLD: Well, there was a weather issue late last week, if you remember, that really swept through some of the big, key airports in Chicago and Denver. But we've seen this at airports - or with airlines, you know, over the last year and a half is that when they have these events, they kind of have this crew meltdown where they can't get their planes and pilots and flight attendants in the right places. And when the meltdowns are big enough, they escalate. And they cascade. And they get bigger and bigger over the next few days until the airlines finally have enough slack that they can kind of reset and get everybody back in the right place.

FADEL: But we aren't seeing anywhere near this number of cancellations at other airlines who are also affected by that weather issue. So what's different about Southwest?

ARNOLD: Well, Southwest has blamed, for one, the position of those. The two big hubs that they hit are really important airports. But second, there's a big technology gap that Southwest has blamed. They just - when these things happen, they - the systems melt down. It's like a puzzle. That's what Bob Jordan said. And it's like a puzzle that they're doing blind because they don't know where a lot of people are at this point, flight attendants and pilots. They're calling people. They're showing up at airports and calling out names and taking roll of who is where because the system is so out of date.

FADEL: Now, the Department of Transportation tweeted that it will look into what it called Southwest's unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and reports of lack of prompt customer service. But what can the DOT actually do?

JORDAN: Well, they can force Southwest Airlines to give refunds on a lot of these flights. And there's always some contention here whether these were weather-related. I think it's pretty clear that, after the first day or two, it wasn't weather-related. But the industry is very wary of additional regulation. And that's what the Biden administration has brought and has threatened over the last year or so since coming out of the pandemic. Those regulations add costs to customers and the airlines and lower the profit margins.

FADEL: Now, what's the airline saying about how it intends to make things right for the hundreds of thousands of passengers affected?

ARNOLD: It's really hard to make everything right at this point. A lot of people have had their holidays ruined, their vacations upended. They've promised to reimburse reasonable expenses for rental cars, for getting flights on other airlines, for hotels and things like that. But when you've lost, you know, a very important holiday season like this, you just can't get it back.

FADEL: Yeah, you can't really get back memories that you missed, huh? Kyle Arnold of the Dallas Morning News, thank you so much for all your time.

ARNOLD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.